Nemesis believes that life isn't fair, that life's dealt him a horrible hand, and he is fed up living under the reign of an angry god who kills people willy-nilly. It all just seems so arbitrary, or, as Roth eloquently puts it, "He was struck by....how powerless each of us is against the force of circumstance."
As the cover blurb states, this theme is one Roth has played with frequently in his recent quartet of slim novels (Everyman, Indignation, The Humbling and Nemesis). Nemesis, though, may be the best of the lot. The novel is set in Newark in the summer of 1944, amidst a burgeoning polio epidemic. Bucky supervises a playground of grade-school-age kids and laments the fact that his poor eyesight has prevented him from joining the war effort, as his two best friends have.
Some fellas just aren't happy unless they're miserable, and Bucky seems to be one of these. When kids on his playground start contracting — and dying from — polio, Bucky gets angrier and angrier, and he feels more and more helpless against chance. So he takes a chance of his own, accepting a job as an instructor at a summer camp in the Poconos where his new fiance is a counselor. But he immediately feels badly about it — like self-preservation is a sin, like not taking a challenge (even an invented one) head-on is a discredit to himself. For Bucky, the fact that his two friends are fighting the Germans seems to mean he should have to create and fight his own battles, whatever they may be — even if they're against himself and his own desire to be happy.
Bucky is such a tragic character — but one with whom it's easy to sympathize. He's your standard nice guy, he has the respect of everyone who knows him, and the reader can't help but like him. His harangues against God's unfairness are few and far between at first, and seem more like a minor glitch in an otherwise normal guy, rather than a overarching philosophy that guides Bucky's life. But guide his life his God-anger does. And the angrier he becomes with God, the angrier he is with himself for what he perceives is his helplessness to stop these fresh-faced youths from getting polio. So the question — which Roth spends the rest of the novel answering — is who is Bucky's real nemesis, himself or God?
Beyond Bucky's misguided self-castigations — and how brilliantly, though simply, Roth renders them — the other thing I loved about this novel is how the idea of people's fear of the unknown about polio, and their need to assign blame, definitely draws to mind contemporary issues. Folks in 1944 had no idea what caused polio and how it spread. And, despite reactionary and ineffective strategies to try to contain it, fear spread at the same rate.. Sound familiar?
I loved this book, sure. But in the interest of full disclosure, Roth can do little wrong in my eyes. He's one of my favorites, and I've read him more than any other novelist. Nemesis isn't quite in the top-tier, American Pastoral or Portnoy's Complaint level of Roth novels, but it's very, very good. Highly recommend!